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In Pennsylvania, Ballot Access Is Not Equal

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
A voter fills out his ballot in a church on election day Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Lancaster, Pa.

It took just 500 write-in votes for lifelong Democrats Chelsa Wagner and John Weinstein to get their names on the November ballots as Republicans, but it will take 2,328 signatures if a third-party candidate wants to have the same opportunity.

“The deck is stacked against third parties,” said David Hughes, Green Party of Allegheny County Executive Committee member.  “The laws are written by the Republicans and the Democrats to keep out threats or competition.”

The Republican Party in Allegheny County did not put up candidates for any of the county row offices, but registered Republicans wrote in John Weinstein’s name 803 times for County Treasurer and Chelsa Wagner’s name 970 times for County Controller. Both Weinstein and Wagner also received the Democratic nomination for the same seats — Weinstein ran unopposed and Wagner defeated Mark Patrick Flaherty — virtually assuring a win in November.

“The interest of the voters, which is what elections are supposed to be about, is in having multiple candidates and in some cases a third-party candidate is the only way to do that,” said Dave Eckhardt, Vote Allegheny Vice President.

The Libertarian Party is the only political party other than the Republicans and the Democrats currently recognized by the state. For a candidate from any other party to get on the November general election ballot, they must submit signatures totaling 2 percent of the total number of votes received by the top vote getter for a similar office in the most recent election. 

For an Allegheny County row office, that is currently 2,328 based on the 2013 sheriff’s race where Democrat Bill Mullen picked up 116,380 votes. In two years that threshold will be 1,841 based on the 92,040 votes gathered this May by District Attorney Steven Zappala.

For a third-party candidate who is trying to get started with a campaign that could be prohibitive, according to Eckhardt. 

“If you hire people to gather signatures for you the going rate is around $2.00 per signature… a third-party candidate might not have been going to spend that much on the campaign in general,” he said.

To become a recognized party in Pennsylvania from a ballot standpoint, a candidate of that party must gather 2 percent of the vote in any state-wide race. The party is then recognized by the state for the next two years. 

Lacking that minor party status, the only option for someone outside of the two-party system to get on the ballot is to file the needed number of signatures. Even if a candidate can afford the time or the cost of gathering those signatures, they must hold enough in reserve to fend off a legal fight.

Republican and Democratic party leaders often challenge the signatures of third-party candidates out of fear that votes could be syphoned away from their candidates. To defend such a challenge, candidates usually have to hire lawyers, and under state law, the side that loses the challenge is on the hook for the other party’s legal fees.

“Those bills are higher if the third-party candidate filed more signatures," Eckhardt said. "That is if you do a better job gathering signatures to get on the ballot then it costs your opponents more to challenge you and therefore it will cost you more to pay those bills.”

A lawsuit is currently making its way through the commonwealth’s court system trying to change the financial responsibility, but the plaintiffs might run out of cash before it reaches its final ruling. Furthermore, a temporary injunction could be needed if the case is not finalized by the time petitions must be filed for the 2016 presidential election. 

In the meantime, supporters of change are putting their hopes on Senate Bill 495. The measure introduced by Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) would lower the number of signatures needed for a third-party candidate to the level needed by the Republicans and Democrats.  It would also allow parties with registration levels of at least five one hundredths of one percent (.0005) to place candidates on the ballot based on a state convention.  The Green and Libertarian parties would both qualify under that scenario.

Similar legislation has been introduced by Folmer in the last two sessions but has died in committee each time.

“Pennsylvania may be the worst in the county for election laws and opening the process up to alternatives to the two major parties,” Hughes said.

Hughes said he believes that until there is ballot reform in Pennsylvania, the state will continue to grapple with corruption and what he sees as misaligned priorities.

“The only way this is ever going to change is if there is a real viable alternative to the two major parties because pretty much they run anything,” Hughes said. “They write the laws, they take all the money from all the big lobbies and special interests and nothing ever changes.”